As we get older, our heart, the muscle that keeps our blood pumping, changes dramatically — and a recent study finds that much of the change often falls along gender lines.
The long-term study looked at 5,000 participants aged 45-84 over a 10-year period who were taking part in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, a study sponsored by the National Institute of Health’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.
They measured for a number of different heart factors, but the biggest thing they saw was that male hearts tended to get thicker over time, while women’s often became thinner over the same time period. For both, the cavity around the heart, called the pericardial cavity, shrinks.
It wasn’t a hard and fast rule, though it was a strong finding: The researchers did see that there were women whose heart muscle got thicker, while some men’s hearts got thinner. But for the most part, the researchers saw a consistent thickening for men, and a slight decrease for women.
But the vast majority of medications we have to address these physical changes are designed to treat the ones typically found in ageing men.
A natural conclusion would be to say sex hormones must play a role in this. Sex hormones, like testosterone and estrogen are involved in muscle development throughout a person’s life. But could differences in sex hormones have this much of an effect on the heart muscle? Study author and Johns Hopkins professor of medicine and radiology Joao Lima told Business Insider that’s “the million dollar question.”
“If we unlock the mechanism we could treat men and women differently,” Lima said.
That could drastically lower the amount of women who die of heart disease, said Lima. Over the past few decades the rate of heart disease among men in the United States has steadily dropped since the 1980s, thanks to preventative measures like making lifestyle changes to diets and smoking habits and medications like beta blockers. Yet it hasn’t done so with women. Heart disease remains the number-one killer of American women.
And, Lima said, women go far more underreported when it comes to heart failure. That’s because women don’t exhibit the same symptoms as men.
“Heart disease is a big problem [for women] because it manifests a little later, and because of that the doctor didn’t think about and doesn’t think it’s cardiac arrest,” he said.
Although there are some new heart disease drugs in development, Lima said none are the “big hit” needed to work incredibly well in women.
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